January 17, 2014

3D Gospel Conversations - Dialogue

This is the ninth in a series of posts focusing on communicating the gospel. Each post is a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fifth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.


The third “D” of the 3D's of a gospel conversation (borrowed from Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism) is - dialogue.  It is to this element of the gospel conversation that Randy Newman has devoted his book Questioning Evangelism.  It is a book that I think we would all benefit from reading, because it is the part of our gospel conversations that I think we most often forget to include.  That we need to make declarative statements about God, Man, and Christ or Creation, Rebellion, Reconciliation, or Consummation isn’t hard to grasp.  That we should be prepared to gently give reasons for what we believe (engaging in apologetics) has been encouraged by Christian leaders for years.  However, the idea of incorporating asking genuine questions and letting the conversation have a real life of its own is something that isn’t talked about as often.  Dialoguing through asking good questions is the essence of every good conversation in general, and every good gospel conversation in particular.  When we engage in dialogue with people by asking good questions, we are following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus.

A friend of mine, Andrew, once asked me to help him with a sticky situation he found himself in with a colleague of his from work.  Andrew said that almost every day his colleague would ask him something to the effect of:  “As a Christian, do you think that non-Christians like me will go to hell?”  Andrew said that he tried to answer him as gently as possible, that yes, indeed that is what he believes the Bible teaches.  His answer would infuriate his colleague and the conversation would end abruptly.  Andrew told me that this exchange happened often and he didn’t know what else to do.  He didn’t want the conversation (and his relationship!) to be so full of hostility, but he also didn’t want to back down from what he believes the Bible to teach.  I asked Andrew to respond to his colleagues question about hell with another question, “Do you believe hell exists?”

This question does a few things.  The first thing is that is takes Andrew off the hot-seat.  The second thing it does is it provides an opportunity for further conversation and thinking.  If Andrew’s colleague responds by saying that he does indeed believe that some sort of hell exists and is populated, Andrew can ask him a question like, “Well, if hell exists and people go there, what do you think is the criteria for who is in hell and who is not?”  If Andrew’s colleague responds by saying that he does not believe hell exists, Andrew can ask him a question like, “Well, then why are you fixated the issue?  Why do you care what I think about a place you don’t even think exists?”  Either way, answering a difficult question with a thoughtful question provides an opportunity for the conversation to continue in a more honest, open, and courteous way.

Answering a question with a question was a common tactic used in the 1st Century by Rabbis in general and Jesus in particular.  One example of Jesus answering a question with a question is found in Mark 10:17-18.

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

If there was ever a time that I would launch into a declarative presentation of the gospel, it would be when someone asks me how to inherit eternal life.  This seems like hitting a slow-pitch toss floating towards the plate, or shooting a soccer ball into a wide-open net from ten feet away.  Jesus responds in a way that seems counterintuitive.  He answers a question with a question.  He engages the man in a dialogue.

The key to implementing dialogue within our gospel conversations is to ask good questions and listen intently.  There are at least two reasons why we ask questions in our gospel conversations:  We ask questions to discover the views and opinions of our conversation partner, and we ask questions to help us understand how to answer our conversation partner later in the conversation (or in a conversation that happens later).

When we are trying to understand where people are coming from we are wise to try to understand what people mean when they use certain terms and the basis for their opinions.  We can ask people to define what they mean when they use certain terms by asking them, “What do you mean by ___?”  In Andrew’s workplace situation about hell, he could ask his colleague what he means by hell, so he knows what his colleague believes hell is (or is not).  Gospel conversations are always more effective when the tone of the conversation is calm, cool, and collected.  Arguments tend to provide more heat than light.  A lot of confusion and frustration can be avoided when we understand how people are understanding and using certain terms.  Before we launch into a tirade when someone says something we think is ridiculous, we are wise to ask them to define their terms to see if our opinions are closer than they may first appear.

Another important step in understanding what people think and believe is to ask them what the basis is for understanding things the way they do.  It is helpful to know how people arrive at certain conclusions.  Have they heavily investigated something or is it just a gut feeling?  To determine your conversation partners basis for their opinion you can simply ask them, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?”, or “How did you get there?”  In Andrew’s workplace situation about hell, this question would help determine the life situations and experiences that have influenced his colleague’s opinion.  People do not come to their beliefs in an experiential vacuum.  Events in our lives, and relationships with other people significantly impact our views on issues in general, and our views on religious issues in particular.

When we ask questions to understand our conversation partner, we can then use our discernment to see how we should answer them. The book of Proverbs categorizes people into two groups:  people who are wise and people who are fools.  Wise people fear and love God.  Foolish people do not fear or love God.  Proverbs 26:4-5 are two of my favourite verses in the Old Testament:

4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
These verses in Proverbs make it clear that we will obviously be in situations where we need to answer our conversation partner’s questions, and times when we ought not answer their questions.  So how do we determine whether our non-Christian conversation partner is a fool that we should answer according to their folly or not?  The way that I apply these verses into my conversations is by discerning whether my conversation partner is genuinely curious about something, or if they are merely antagonistic and uninterested in my actual opinion.  Someone can ask me the question, “What do you think?” in a way that makes it clear that they do (or not) care about what I actually do think. When someone cares about the answer to their questions we are wise to answer them.  When someone does not genuinely care about the answer we are wise not to answer them them.

Asking good questions helps turn our gospel conversations into a legitimate dialogue rather than a series of monologues that go back and forth.

The gospel is the best news we could possibly hear.  We all have a role to play in communicating the gospel to those around us.  For some of us, it will be a simple, easy, and natural process because God has gifted us in a particular way.  For others, it will be a process full of nervousness and discomfort because God has gifted us in other ways.  Just because the process is hard for some of us doesn’t mean we quit.  Regardless of whether we find talking about the gospel easy or difficult, it is wise to use the 3-Ds (declare, defend, and dialogue) in our conversations for the good of others and the glory of God.

December 13, 2013

3D Gospel Conversations - Defend

This is the eighth in a series of posts focusing on communicating the gospel. Each post is a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fifth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.


The second “D” of the 3D's of a gospel conversation (borrowed from Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism) is - defend.  

It is a common occurrence in a conversation for someone to provide a defense for their declarative statements.  Think of the last time you went out for a meal with a friend.  It’s likely that at some point during the meal your friend, or the server, asked you how your meal tastes.  If for some reason your meal is really disappointing, you not only say that your meal is not good but you also provide reasons why your meal is not good.  Without consciously knowing it, you have just made a declarative statement and provided a defense.  The Apostle Peter wrote about the importance having reasons for our belief in 1 Peter 3:13-16:

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

Many people we engage in gospel conversations with will see the world in a very different way than we do.  When we gently give reasons for what we believe and how we think, we are providing a defense that will help our conversation partner know why we believe what we do.  We need to be prepared to provide a defense for why we believe what we do.  The area of defending Christian thought and belief is known as apologetics.  There are many questions and claims that apologetics provides answers for, but there are two significant themes that will arise in most of our gospel conversations: (1) There can’t be just one true religion; and (2) If a good and loving God exists then why is there is evil and suffering?

1.  There can’t be just one true religion.
Canadian culture, more than that of many other countries, is intrinsically pluralistic.  According to the latest Canadian statistics about religion in Canada, almost 84% of the population self identifies as religious in one way or another (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, etc.).  While there is a seemingly growing population of staunch atheists in Canada, it is still very common for people in Canada to be respectful of your religious beliefs.  However, what the majority of Canadians will not accept is the belief or attitude that there is one true religion.  There are three claims that will often be made by people surrounding the belief that there cannot be just one true religion:  All religions teach the same thing, all religions see a part of the spiritual truth but not the whole, and it is arrogant to insist one understanding of religion is right and all others are wrong.

The first claim made by people arguing there is no one true religion is that all major religions are equally valid because they basically teach the same thing.  Much of the multicultural efforts and events in our cities grow out of the belief that all religions essentially teach the same things (e.g., loving people, being kind, helping the poor, etc.).  While there is certainly some overlap between various religions regarding how people should be treated, there are still distinctions.  For example, within the Sikh worldview, all people are created equal regardless of their ethnicity or gender and should be treated fairly.  The Sikh people try to feed the hungry and give money to the poor, regardless of who they are, as a part of their religious duty.  However, in the Hindu worldview, people are divided into distinct and unchangeable castes.  A person of a higher class ought never engage with people of a lower class - and it would be unthinkable to help someone who is in a lower caste experience a better life because they deserve that life (the proof being that they were born into that caste).  A quick exploration of these two Indian religions shows very clearly that while there may be similarities between religions, they do not essentially teach the same thing - even regarding how people ought to treat each other.

Furthermore, a closer examination and comparison of different religions shows that different world religions, at their very core, teach fundamentally different doctrine.  One quick example will hopefully suffice.  At the very core of Buddhism is an impersonal life force that overflowed so that the world, and people, appeared.  The goal in life is to return, and become amalgamated, into this impersonal life force just as a drop of rain becomes indistinguishable from the ocean water it falls into.  The very core of Christianity is that the God who was personally responsible for Creation, and who was rejected by the very people he created to have relationship with, entered into history as the man Jesus of Nazareth (who was fully God and fully man) so that he could die to absorb all of the consequences and punishments due to humanity for their rebellion against him.  Jesus rose from the dead to prove that he is truly God, that all he taught was true, and that he has finished all that is necessary for humans to be reconciled to God and enjoy him forward.  When humans choose to follow Jesus they are reconciled to God and wait in anticipation to enjoy eternal life with him and everyone else who trusts and follows Jesus.  The two fundamental narratives of Buddhism and Christianity could not be more different.  One is essentially atheistic, in the sense that it does not believe in one god or multiple gods; the other is monotheistic, or holds to the belief that there is one true God.  One brings ‘salvation’ through human effort; the other offers salvation to all who trust in the One who is fully God and fully human.

When someone makes a claim that all religions teach essentially the same thing, it is evidence of their desire for people to get along and not fight each other (a noble desire!), but it is also evidence that they have not spent significant time investigating the narrative and claims of the different major world religions.  The more one invests time in learning about different world religions, the more one realizes just how unique Christianity is from all the other world religions.  There are certainly some similarities between different world religions, however the claim that all religions essentially teach the same thing is simply an untenable and flawed statement.

The second major claim made by people in a multicultural and pluralistic setting is maintaining that there is no one true religion (that each religion sees part of the spiritual truth, and that no one religion can see the whole truth).  Often this claim will be quickly followed by a story about three blind men and an elephant.  The story goes something like this:

There are three blind men who stumble upon an elephant.  Each man encounters a different area of the elephant.  They ask each other what this object is that is in front of them.  One blind man puts his hands out in front and he feels the firmness and flatness of the elephant’s side.  He emphatically proclaims, “This object is certainly a wall!”  A second blind man puts his hands out in front and he wraps his arms around the wide, sturdy, and circular characteristics of the elephant’s leg.  He yells with excitement, “No, this object is certainly a tree trunk!”  The third man feels the tube-like features of the elephant’s trunk.  He emphatically responds, “No, the object is certainly a hose!”

The story seems to be a great metaphor for the claim that all religions see only part of the spiritual truth, but not the whole truth. However, the story ironically makes a better case for believing that there actually is only one true worldview that excludes the truthfulness of other worldviews.  There certainly are three blind men in this parable, but they are not the only ones involved in the story, there is a storyteller who watches the whole scene unfold.  The narrator knows the whole story and is in a position of privilege.  The truth of the parable is that the object under investigation was not actually a wall, a tree trunk, or a hose (like the respective blind men honestly believed); the object in question was indeed an elephant.  So the question that one must ask at this point is, which worldview or religion gets to narrate the story?  Which worldview or religion gets to see not just part of spiritual truth but gets to see all of the spiritual truth?

We live in a world of competing worldviews.  That only one of them can be right, and all the others wrong, is not an outlandish belief.  Therefore, it is the task of the spiritual seeker not to throw up her arms in bewilderment, but to do the hard work of investigating the claims and histories of the various world religions and worldviews to see which makes the most sense of the world around them.  What worldview makes the most sense of the fact that we as humans desire things like love, comfort, and relationship?  What worldview makes sense of the fact that we as humans believe that things like a baby’s smile, delicious food, and caring friends are good and enjoyable; yet rape, genocide, and incest are evil and ought to be opposed?  As followers of Jesus, we believe that God gets to be the narrator, and Christianity is the one true story.  It is the narrative of Christianity that lets us know that the elephant is not a wall, a tree trunk, or a hose but is actually an elephant.
The third claim made by people arguing against the existence of one true religion is that it is arrogant to insist that your religion and beliefs about God are right, and it is unkind to try to convince other people of your perspective.  This claim rests firmly on the belief that to claim certainty is arrogant and to disagree with someone else is intolerant.  However, the very logic upon which this claim rests is the same logic that makes this claim indefensible.  The claim that there is no one true view on a issue, is in itself a claim of being the one true view.  The claimer is guilty of the very arrogance of which they accuse the other.  Furthermore, the claim that it is unkind to try to convince other people of your perspective is once again self-refuting logic.  The claimer is trying to convince the other that they are right.  Therefore, the one making the claim must also be unkind in their insistence on being right.  While this claim seems to be a conversation ender, it can actually be a comment that may continue the conversation in a (hopefully) healthy and helpful direction.  To winsomely show someone that their claim is self-refuting may provide an opportunity to make the concession that both parties think they are right and the other is wrong, but nevertheless they hope the conversation can continue.

2.  If a good and loving God exists, why is there evil and suffering?

The idea that a good, loving, and all powerful God can exist even though there is evil and suffering in the world is not a very difficult philosophical idea to defend.  However, I won’t be unpacking the philosophical reasoning of it here.  The reason for this is because in the context of the vast majority of our gospel conversations, the question of a good and loving God coexisting with a world full of evil and suffering is not coming from a place of philosophical curiosity but rather a place of deep experiential pain.  What your conversation partner likely needs most in the moment is not a philosophically sound argument, but a compassionate and caring friend who acknowledges their pain.

Responding to a claim like this one by saying something to the effect of, “There are many people smarter than I who have thought through this issue and have come to the conclusion that a good and loving God can coexist with a world full of evil and suffering.  But, philosophical explanations don’t usually take the pain away.”  This answer does two main things.  Firstly, it acknowledges that there is an answer to the question.  Secondly, it acknowledges that you care more about them as a person than you do looking like you’re smart and have all the answers.

If your conversation partner is one of the very few people who asks this question from a place of pure philosophical curiosity, you can refer them to good resource for their own examination.  Let them know that you will read it too, and if they want to talk about it sometime you’d be happy to.  By removing yourself from being the one who gives the answer on this topic you are able to continue to build your relationship with the person, and you remain a person who is a true friend during times of pain and struggle.  Often it is a true friend who cares, and not a philosophically reasonable argument, that brings comfort in a season of pain and suffering.

We have just scratched the surface of Christian apologetics.  Honesty is always the best policy when we answer our conversation partner’s questions about Christianity.  It is not a failure to honestly admit when we don’t have an answer for a question.  Actually, it is probably a wise strategy to admit when we don’t know the answers rather than making something up out of fear of looking stupid.  We don’t have to know everything, but we should have some places that we turn to in order to help us find an answer.  There are many good books and resources available at both the academic and popular level that can help believers think through their faith.  Regardless of the question, and answer, it is imperative to remember that when we defend our faith we do so in a gentle and winsome way.  We should not try to win an argument at the expense of losing a conversation partner.

November 29, 2013

3D Gospel Conversations - Declare

This is the seventh in a series of posts regarding communicating the gospel. Each post is be a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fifth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.


Conversations and monologues function very differently.  There is a time and place where well-crafted monologues are edifying and life-giving.  The great temptation for many Christians in the realm of talking about our faith is to craft a monologue and then hope for some opportunity to launch into our very best speech.  There is not a lot of verbal interaction during a monologue.  Listening to a monologue is by no means passive (it takes a lot of hard work to listen to well), but there are not a lot of opportunities during a monologue to ask the speaker to nuance what they just said.  Conversations, however, happen much more naturally in our everyday life.  They involve a give and take, opportunities to question and clarify, and opportunities to speak and to listen.  When we think about sharing our faith with others, we are wise to view them as genuine conversations rather than opportunities to launch into a well-crafted speech.
In his book, Questioning Evangelism, Randy Newman talks about the three main components involved in every gospel conversation:  Declaring, Defending, and Dialoguing.  Newman presents a helpful paradigm that is both robust and practical.  It captures all the important elements of a genuine conversation about any topic, but especially the gospel.  Plus, it’s catchy and easy to remember:  real gospel conversations are in 3-D - declare, defend, and dialogue.  Regardless of how easily or naturally the words flow out of us, when we engage in our gospel conversations with others we would be wise to use the 3-Ds Newman mentions.  Let’s take some time and examine each element in a bit more depth.

The first “D” we will take a look at is declare.  Out of the three “Ds,” declaring is probably the easiest one to understand.  As a part of a gospel conversation we need to do our best to faithfully articulate the core elements of the gospel.  We should be prepared to boldly, and winsomely, communicate that God is solely responsible for creating a good world.  Humans willingly rebelled against God and his good plan.  God initiated a plan to reconcile humanity back to himself ultimately through the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus will return to judge everyone and will bring his Kingdom to fully and finally bear on all of creation when he makes everything new.  Those who recognize their rebellion against God and trust in Jesus as their perfection and reconciliation will be a part of the New Creation, in the presence of God forever.  A conversation is not a gospel conversation if there is no attempt to faithfully communicate all - or part - of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Communicating the truths of the gospel is the way that people come to, and grow in, their committed following of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.  Jesus has commissioned his followers to be active disciple-making-disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), and making declarative statements about the gospel is the primary way in which we will engage in this mission.

Next week's post will explore the second "D" of a 3D gospel conversation - defend.

November 22, 2013

Loving Others Well - Part 2

This is the sixth in a series of posts regarding communicating the gospel. Each post will be a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fourth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.

Knowing Your Conversation Partners

I have been a lifelong hockey fan.  I have participated in many hockey pools and have followed the NHL closely every year for as long as I can remember.  There are definitely people who know a lot more about the intricacies of hockey in general and the NHL in particular, but I still think I know quite a bit about hockey.  I, like many other Vancouver Canucks fans, look back on past draft years and marvel at the “could-have-been” situations if only the hometown team made different decisions.  For example, if Vancouver decided to select, instead of pass up on, two local boys (Milan Lucic and Brendan Gallagher) in drafts separated by four years, the team would likely have a stronger team now and a more hopeful future.  If you follow the NHL closely you will understand what I’m talking about, whether you agree with me or not.  However, if you don’t follow the NHL, everything I just wrote was essentially worthless and a waste of time.

The point is that it’s possible to know something but be unable to communicate it effectively to others.  This often happens when the communicator goes off on a topic that their conversation partner has no framework in place to resonate with or understand.  When we desire to communicate well we need to do the hard work of knowing our conversation partner.  The best way to get to know someone is to carefully listen to them.

Listening Effectively

One of the most valuable undergrad courses I took was Conflict Management with a professor named Janet Boldt.  This course drilled into me the importance of listening well.  Effective listening is hard work because it takes a lot of energy and intentionality.  Listening is not synonymous with not speaking, and it’s not a passive activity.  Listening is a skill that is developed and an art that is crafted.  There are many important components to effective listening but we will focus on three here: (1) Be Attentive, (2) Be Empathetic, and (3) Be Patient.
First, when we listen well we are attentive.  Attentiveness is essentially being intentional about your participation in the conversation.  God created us to be holistic beings - our minds and our bodies are connected.  Attentiveness involves our mind as we concentrate, but it also involves our body language.  When we lean forward, keep our eyes looking in our conversation partner’s direction, and nod our head, we physically demonstrate our mental attentiveness.  Now, of course, it’s best to be subtle in our body language rather than aggressive.  It would be weird to be bent over, fixating on someones eyes, and nodding like a bobble-head doll.  So don’t do that.  But, be sure to do something with your body to show that you actually want to be involved in the conversation, and that you are paying attention.
Secondly, when we listen well we are empathetic.  We should do our very best to put ourselves in our conversation partner’s shoes.  When we hear their stories we should do our best to feel what they feel.  When they are in a season of joy we should feel laughter brewing; when they are in a season of sorrow we should feel tears nearing.  Empathy is hard because it opens us up to feeling something we may not want to feel.  However, when we empathize with others we are communicating that what is being said matters to us.
Thirdly, when we listen well we are patient.  Patience, in the context of listening well, essentially means that we let the conversation develop the way it needs to.  Sometimes this means conversations will move quickly, more often it means the conversation will move slowly.  If while your conversation partner is talking, you are trying to think what about what you should say next so you can move the conversation along, you aren’t practicing patience and probably aren’t listening well.  Patience doesn’t mean, however, that you talk for three hours longer than you planned.  Patience lets the conversation develop the way it needs to, and if you can’t get through everything you wanted to in the conversation before you need to pick up your kids from school or get to a doctor’s appointment, you try to find another time to meet and continue the conversation.  Important conversations can’t be rushed.
Meeting People Where They’re At

When we have listened to where people are coming from, what they think, and what they have experienced in their lives, we have the opportunity to engage in a contextualized gospel conversation.  Contextualize is a big word that basically means we are meeting people where they are at so things make sense, yet being careful not to cut off the parts of the gospel that might be hard to hear.

In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul is preaching the gospel in Athens.  When Paul entered the Areopagus in Athens he found himself in one of his first non-Jewish contexts.  He was talking to a group of Greek people who believed in the existence of many gods (polytheism) rather than the Jewish and Christian belief in One God (monotheism).  In order for Paul to engage in an effective gospel conversation with the crowd in the Areopagus, he needed to be aware of what his audience thought and believed.  When Paul met his audience where they were at with the gospel message, he approached the conversation in three ways: (1) Making Points of Connection, (2) Addressing Points of Contention, (3) Proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Person of Completion.
It is important to be able to find points of connection with your conversation partner.  Even if it appears that two people are on polar opposites on an issue, there is going to be some point of connection that can be used to develop a good rapport.  Even Paul, the committed follower and Apostle of Jesus Christ, when he entered the pagan-polytheistic Areopagus, was able to identify a point of connection:  Paul saw that the people were very religious (verse 22), and even quoted from their own poets (verse 28).  The Apostle Paul used the religiosity and culture of the men of Athens as ways to relate and contextualize his message.  

By God’s grace, every person has things within their worldview that can be used as a point of connection with the Christian story. When we are in a conversation with a staunch atheist who is committed to the scientific process as the only means of finding truth, we can make a point of connection that we too desire to know what is true about our world.  While the two disagree on many things, the search for truth is not one.  Or, when we are in a conversation with a committed Sikh who worships the sovereign Creator, or Vahiguru, as the Ultimate Reality as described in their Holy Book (the Guru Granth Sahib), we can make a point of connection that we too worship the sovereign Creator as revealed in our Holy Book. The above examples will require further nuancing to make clear what we mean by what we say, but that is to be expected - the Apostle Paul had to nuance his language as well.
If we make points of connection without nuancing our language to demonstrate how our beliefs are different than our conversation partners, it can be safely assumed that we agree on everything.  It is at this point that it is valuable to winsomely address our point(s) of contention or disagreement.  The Apostle Paul does this in Acts 17 when he spoke to the people in the Areopagus about the nature of the ‘unknown god’ by describing the one true God (verses 23-27, 29-30).  We ought not be contentious when we talk about our points of contention with our conversation partners.  The only offense that should occur is the offense of the gospel itself, not by the demeanour and tone in which we speak.  When we talk with our staunch atheist friend about our differences regarding how we understand truth, we do well to talk about how we understand truth primarily as the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  Jesus claimed many things about himself, including his own death and resurrection (e.g. Mark 10:33-34). When hundreds of people saw him resurrected three days after he was buried, Jesus’ claims about himself were all vindicated.  Jesus was who he said he was, and therefore must be God.  When we talk with our committed Sikh friend about our differences regarding who the one true God, that our Holy Book reveals, is we would do well to talk about how we believe that God himself was made known to us not only by the words written by prophets but because God himself came to earth as a person.  We don’t know about God only from people who claim to have seen him, but we know about God because of the one who claimed to be him - and proved it by fulfilling his own claims of death and resurrection.
If we want our gospel conversations to meet people where they are, we need to find points of connection and contention.  However, we must never leave the conversation there.  We must do our best to point to Jesus Christ as the one who we trust, follow, and obey.
When we are trying to meet people where they are at, it is very helpful to follow the Apostle Paul’s example.  We need to find points of connection with our conversation partner, winsomely identify the points of disagreement, and do it all with the intention that they would come to see, know, and love Jesus Christ as the person who has completed what was necessary to reconcile us to God.
Even when we follow the Apostle Paul’s model of contextualizing the gospel, it does not necessarily mean that people will repent and believe the good news of Jesus.  There were three types of reactions to the Apostle Paul’s gospel proclamation in the Areopagus:  sneering (verse 32a), further interest (verse 32b), and repentance and belief (verse 34).  When we meet people where they are at in our gospel conversations, we too should expect that some people will mock us, some will be skeptical but willing to hear more, and some will be ready to repent and believe the gospel.  The Apostle Paul experienced a myriad of responses to his faithful gospel proclamation, and we should expect to experience those same responses.

Belonging and Believing

When we love and engage with people in our sphere of influence with intentionality, we will be developing genuine friendships.  Authentic mutual friendships are a powerful foundation for gospel conversations.  It is important for us to recognize that allowing these friends to see what Christian community is like will help their understanding of Christianity.  Following Jesus needs to be a personal choice, but the disciple of Jesus cannot walk out their faith in isolation.  Disciples of Jesus need be involved in a Christian community.  When we incorporate our gospel conversation partners into our Christian community, we not only demonstrate what Christian community looks like, we give them a sneak peek of what holistically following Jesus looks like.

When we consider how and when to incorporate people into Christian community, we are contemplating the relationship between belonging and believing.  There is no doubt that belonging to Christian community and believing in Jesus Christ are connected.  The question, however, is how involved should someone exploring the claims of Christ be in Christian community?  Surely this person should be welcome to participate in Christian community, but what does that participation look like?  Many local churches have a gathered community in the form of a worship service, and also a scattered community in the form of community groups.  Both these gathered and scattered communities have leaders and participants.  Leadership in these gathered and scattered communities look different depending on the context, but usually involve facilitation and teaching of some sort.  In the church service context, leadership can look like people serving as greeters, ushers, musicians, speakers, sound technicians, children ministry volunteers, and many other valuable roles.  In the community group setting, leadership can look teaching, leading prayer, leading times of singing, and facilitating discussion.  We ought not allow the person who has yet to submit to Christ’s lordship be involved in leading within our communities, but they should nevertheless be encouraged to participate in our community.        

When people feel they genuinely belong they are more willing to open up in sharing their thoughts, fears and questions.  Inviting our friends into our homes and encouraging their participation in our communities provides a powerful relational foundation as they consider the claims of Christ.